The enduring love story of John and Abigail Adams began with a whimper rather than a bang in 1762.
They met in Weymouth, Mass., in the house where Abigail was born to a minister and his wife on Nov. 22, 1744. She was only 15, while John was 24. Barely five feet tall and slim, she had dark brown hair and eyes. John was a country lawyer, already losing his hair and quite plump – not necessarily a bad thing in those days.
John accompanied his friend Richard Cranch to the house where Abigail lived with her parents and two sisters. They went because Richard had a romantic interest in Abigail’s older sister Mary.
John described the visit in his diary as a waste of time. He didn’t like Abigail’s father, the Rev. William Smith, describing him as ‘a crafty designing man.’ He dismissed the three girls was “not fond, not frank, not candid.” Nor did Abigail’s mother Elizabeth Quincy think much of John, who, she felt, lacked manners.
John would soon change his mind about the bookish minister’s daughter. John and Abigail got to know each other over the next three years, as he had legal business in Weymouth and Cranch courted, then married, Mary. They wed on Oct. 25, 1764, five days before John’s 29th birthday. The newlyweds rode off on a single horse together to their new home, a small house and farm in Braintree that John had inherited.
John and Abigail
They would be married for 50 years, have five children, and witness revolution, war, scandal, diplomatic crises and the birth of a new nation. They would endure long separations, during which they wrote more than a thousand letters to each other. Of those letters written between between 1762 and 1801, 1,160 survive.
The letters that tell us about their long love affair. At times passionate, occasionally vexed, they were lovers, friends, partners, trusted advisers and confidantes.
John’s involvement in the American Revolution and the creation of the new republic often separated them. During the 1770s, he was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress; in the 1780s, he was a negotiator in Europe; and in the 1790s, vice president and president in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
John quickly got over his initial indifference to Abigail. The founding father became downright frisky in his letters to her. For example, during their courtship on Oct. 4, 1762, he wrote to “Miss Adorable.”
By the same token that the bearer hereof [JA] satt up with you last night, I hereby order you to give him, as many kisses, and as many Hours of your company after nine o’clock as he pleases to demand, and charge them to my account.
Abigail took a more high-minded approach. They followed the custom of the day, and adopted pen names for each other: John called himself Lysander, Abigail Diana. On Aug. 11, 1763, she wrote,
And there is a tye more binding than Humanity, and stronger than Friendship … unite these, and there is a threefold chord — and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it. … The health and happiness of Seneca she says was not dearer to his Paulina, than that of Lysander to his Diana.
Heart and Mind
More than a decade later, John wrote a letter to Abigail dated April 28, 1776 that showed his reliance on her mind as well as her heart:
Is there no Way for two friendly Souls, to converse together, altho the Bodies are 400 Miles off?— Yes by Letter.— But I want a better Communication. I want to hear you think, or see your Thoughts. The Conclusion of your Letter makes my Heart throb, more than a Cannonade would. You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.
‘Remember the ladies’
Abigail embraced the concept of independence personally and politically. While John traveled, she managed the farm, raised their children and enlarged the house. But she also joined John in Paris and played the role of ambassador’s wife, and as First Lady she entertained formally .
When John was president her political activity earned her the nickname “Mrs. President.”
John was in Philaldephia advocating independence when she wrote perhaps her most famous letter to him. On March 31, 1776, she wrote,
I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
History often forgets that John mocked her effrontery. “I cannot but laugh,” he wrote. “[Y]ou ar so saucy.”
Twenty years after they met in her father’s home, they still felt passionately about each other. On Dec. 23, 1782, when John was in The Netherlands trying to borrow money for the new American government, Abigail wrote:
My Dearest Friend,
…should I draw you the picture of my Heart, it would be what I hope you still would Love; tho it contained nothing new; the early possession you obtained there; and the absolute power you have ever maintained over it; leaves not the smallest space unoccupied. I look back to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time — nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untitled man to whom I gave my Heart…
Blessings on This House
John and Abigail would live together in Washington in the unfinished ‘President’s House,’ where Abigail would famously hang their laundry to dry in the East Room. John arrived first, and he penned words to Abigail on Nov. 2, 1800, that would be chiseled over the fireplace in the State Dining Room:
I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
John acknowledged Abigail Adams as a partner and an equal many times, but in none so poignant as the one he wrote at the end of his presidency:
It is fit and proper that you and I should retire together and not one before the other.
I am with unabated Confidence and affection your
With thanks to First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph Ellis and to the Massachusetts Historical Society. This story about John and Abigail Adams was updated in 2023.
Abigail was such a courageous and strong woman.
I think it’s wonderful that they didn’t let that first meeting foretell their future.
A wonderful article!
[…] a former Confederate officer and a newspaper publisher. Her mother, Kate Adams, was a descendant of John and Abigail Adams and the daughter of Confederate Army Col. Charles W. […]
Comments are closed.